Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Buttermilk – does it have butter in it?

What do you think of when you hear the word “buttermilk”? I know I think of buttermilk pancakes but that is certainly not the only use for buttermilk. What it is and how to use it is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Before the 1920s, buttermilk was different than it is today. Cooks left their unpasteurized cream to sit for a few days to thicken before churning into butter. During this time, naturally occurring bacteria caused it to ferment by converting milk sugars into lactic acid. This resulted in a liquid with a mildly sour taste and a slightly thickened texture. This is also where the name buttermilk comes from as it results from the process of churning butter.

Today, almost all milk/cream is pasteurized at high temperatures, killing the bacteria. Makers of buttermilk reintroduce lactic acid bacteria into this pasteurized milk. This is called “Cultured Buttermilk” and is what you will find in the store.

When you use buttermilk, it is often combined with baking soda. The lactic acid paired with the alkaline baking soda causes a chemical reaction that leads to the rise that you want in pancakes or buttermilk biscuits. It adds a tangy flavor as well as acting as a tenderizer in baked goods. You can also use it in cooking but it can curdle if heated too quickly. To incorporate into hot dishes, warm it separately in a saucepan over medium-low heat first.

Most recipes only call for a small amount of buttermilk and most stores only sell it in 1 quart or ½ gallon sizes. Less commonly, you might be able to find it in a pint size. It does last longer in the refrigerator than other dairy products as the lactic acid inhibits bacterial growth. According to the USDA, buttermilk can be kept in the refrigerator for about two weeks. It can also be frozen for up to three months. To do this, pour into an ice cube tray and once solid, move to a plastic bag. You can defrost it overnight in the refrigerator although it will separate. A quick whisking will bring it back together. You can also microwave it on medium power. Testers have found there is not much difference using frozen as compared to fresh buttermilk.

What if you don’t have any buttermilk on hand and do not want to buy it in the quantities offered? A look in cookbooks and websites will give you a number of alternatives. Here is a list.

  • Milk and vinegar
  • Milk and lemon juice
  • Milk and cream of tartar
  • Sour cream
  • Yogurt
  • Powdered buttermilk

Many of these sources just repeat what they have been told or read without asking if they are good alternatives. Do they really work as well as real buttermilk? I have found a couple sources (Cooks’ Illustrated and that have actually put these alternatives to the test. I will try to summarize the results.

Milk & acid

  • This is done by adding 1 tablespoon of either lemon juice or vinegar to 1 cup whole milk, stirring together and then allowing it to sit for 10 minutes to thicken. A different acid that can also be used is cream of tartar. Add 1¾ teaspoon to 1 cup whole milk.
  • Although mixing vinegar, lemon juice or cream of tartar into whole milk will produce an acidified product, they do not compare to real buttermilk.
    • Lemon juice adds a distinct lemony taste that you may not want.
    • Pancakes do not brown as well and do not get as puffy as with real buttermilk.
    • Cream of tartar can lead to very rubbery pancakes. If you decide to try this, the cream of tartar should be added to the dry ingredients as it will clump when added to the milk.
  • Cooks’ Country found better results with recipes for biscuits and chocolate cakes. The biscuits made with either buttermilk powder (see below) or soured milk were lighter and fluffier as compared with liquid buttermilk. Many also preferred the flavor of those made with soured milk.  The upshot was that all were acceptable.

Sour cream or yogurt

  • Both of these products should be thinned with water. Most recommend using ¾ cup of the dairy product and ¼ cup of water. They should be whisked together but no resting time is necessary.
  • Some testers found that both sour cream and yogurt performed better than the acidulated milk but not as good as real buttermilk.
  • They also concluded that Greek yogurt the best choice. Whisk together ⅓ cup whole milk Greek yogurt with ¾ cup 1% milk. This was an excellent alternative in terms of results.
  • Cooks’ Country tested yogurt and buttermilk in biscuits, pancakes and sheet cake. They tried just yogurt, just buttermilk and also a mixture of half yogurt and half buttermilk. In sheet cakes & biscuits, all worked well. In pancakes, pure yogurt did not work as the batter was too thick making it hard to cook all the way through without getting the exteriors too dark. However, the 50/50 mixture worked well.

Buttermilk powder

  • This product is made from buttermilk that has been heated and dehydrated to produce a stable powder. The product made by Saco Pantry (not the only brand available) is made from actual cultured, churned sweet cream buttermilk. Because of this, some feel that there is more richness as compared to its liquid counterpart. The latter is made from skim milk that has been inoculated with bacteria.
  • Another great thing about this product is that is has a long shelf life. Once opened, it should be refrigerated. It is usable up to the expiration date, which is about 2 years after you buy it.
  • To use the buttermilk powder, follow the instructions on the canister, which has you mix the powder with the same amount of water as the buttermilk that is called for in the recipe. For baked goods, it is best to add the powder to the dry ingredients and then add the water when the recipe says to add the buttermilk.
  • It is said to add flavor, tenderness and richness as well as improved moisture retention and enhanced browning. King Arthur’s Test Kitchen Charlotte Rutledge uses it in her pie dough as she says it impedes gluten development and makes rolling it out easier and increases the crust’s delicate texture.
  • In testing, King Arthur flour tried it in buttermilk pie, buttermilk cake, biscuits and sugar cookies. They liked how it worked in all the recipes. They did find two differences as compared to using liquid buttermilk. Those baked goods made with the powder are slightly lighter in color and the flavor is more creamy-buttery rather than tangy. They state they you can use milk rather than water, which gives even better texture and flavor.
  • Cooks’ Illustrated also loved it for baking applications. However, they found problems in other recipes such as coleslaw and mashed potatoes. It led to watery, looser results. The recommend decreasing the water by 25% while using the normal amount of powder. When used for coating fried chicken, the coating did not stick. They found no way around this problem.
  • Finally, it was the favorite from the testing done on although the only recipe tested was a buttermilk pancake recipe. They found its flavor was the closest to true buttermilk and the pancakes were evenly golden with a light and fluffy interior.

In summary, if you usually have liquid buttermilk on hand, that’s great. If you don’t, though, you may want to grab a can of powdered buttermilk. It can do as well and sometimes even better than the liquid buttermilk in most applications. I know I always have a can in my refrigerator. What about you? What do you use?

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Pie Plates – what are the differences?

As fall grows near and pie baking season approaches, many of you consider what type of pie crust you want to try and what fillings you wish to use. How many of you stopped to consider what type of pie plate to use and if there are differences among them? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Other than holding your pie crust/filling, what should a good pie pan be like? Here are some of the considerations.

  • Durability – is it of high enough quality that it will last for many years?
  • Maneuverability – is it easy to put in and take out of oven and to the dinner table?
  • Browning – does it brown evenly from the top to the bottom and are the crusts crisp?
  • Versatility – does it perform equally well for flaky-crust pies and press-in crusts? Does the shape or size limit the recipes that can be used? Does it yield evenly baked, golden crusts and thoroughly-cooked fillings every time no matter the type of pie?
  • Size/Depth – The size needs to be able to hold the amount of filling you want for a fruit pie but not so big that it looks too small for icebox pies, custard pies or quiches. Most pie plates are 9-10 inches in diameter. Measure across the center from inside rim to opposite inside rim. Do not include the lip or handles. For depth, measure from top of rim to crease at bottom. A deep dish pie pan is said to be ½ to 2 inches in depth. A deep pan works best for double-crust and single crust pies with generous fillings. A 1½ inch pan can be used for both double and single crust pies.
  • Clean-up – how easy is it to clean? Is it dishwasher safe?
  • Value – how much does it cost?

There are three main materials out of which pie plates are made – glass, ceramic and metal. There are, of course, pros/cons to each.


  • Very affordable and widely available.
  • Heats slowly and allows heat to build gradually and evenly. This allows the pastry and filling to cook at the same moderate pace.
  • Bakes by both conduction and radiant heat energy, which allows the heat to go directly through the glass to the crust.
  • The clear bottom allows you to see how the bottom is baking.


  • Attractive with different designs and color.
  • Conducts heat slowly and evenly, leads to uniformly golden crusts and thoroughly cooked fillings.
  • Many can be used under the broiler.
  • Can’t see through them to check on the crust.
  • They are pricier and heavier.


  • Conducts heat rapidly and gets hotter in the oven leading to quicker browning. However, due to this, the pie can easily become over-browned if the pie filling needs to be in the oven for longer times.
  • One with a dull finish will absorb heat and bake faster than one with a shiny finish.
  • Choose a heavier pan made of a good heat conductor.

Disposable aluminum pie plates

  • Due to their thin walls, these pans can’t hold or transfer a significant amount of heat from oven to crust. So, the crusts bake more slowly and need more time in the oven.
  • For par-baking, may need to bake at least 10 minutes more than usual.
  • For double-crust pies, increase baking time by 10 minutes and cover with foil if pie is getting too dark.
  • Place on a preheated baking sheet for a well-browned bottom crust and more stability when moving out of the oven. Another tip is to bake the pie inside a glass or ceramic pan, which will aid with even heat distribution and more stability.

As you would expect, different experts had different opinions about the best pans but there are some similarities.

Cooks Illustrated – 2017 testing

  • They tested 2 metal, 2 ceramic and 3 glass pie plates. They found that all produced nicely cooked fillings but the quality of the crusts varied. The two problems were poor crust release & pale bottom crusts.
  • All 3 glass plates had problems with crust relief. This was not a problem with ceramic or metal.
  • All double-crust pies had nice golden-brown top crusts but varied in the brownness of the bottom crust. Those baked in metal or ceramic plates had nicely browned bottoms but the glass ones had softer, paler bottom crusts.
  • They found that the ceramic plates had less versatility as the fluted edges could interfere with forming the crust as you want.
  • Overall, they felt that metal plates were better heat conductors than glass or ceramic.
  • Their overall favorite was the Williams Sonoma Goldtouch Pro Nonstick Pie Dish. It baked evenly with nicely browned crusts on top and bottom. The slices were easy to cut/remove. It cooled quickly for safe handling and is dishwasher safe. The only drawback was that it can easily scratch if using metal utensils. They felt that this was only cosmetic and didn’t affect the performance.

Food & Wine – testing updated as of June 2022

  • Their favorite was the Pyrex 9 inch glass pie plate. It is inexpensive and well-proportioned but lacked the volume of a deep dish pie plate. It had even heat conduction resulting in crisp, uniformly golden pastry. The slices came out easily. It did not scratch and the simple edge lent itself to whatever crimp you want to do.
  • For deep dish plates, they liked two ceramic choices – Baker’s Advantage Deep Dish Pie Plate and Emile Henry Modern Classics Pie Dish.
    • The Emile Henry dish had a generous capacity and produced excellent browning. Besides looking elegant, it is advertised as safe in the microwave, the freezer and the dishwasher. The biggest downside is that it is a pricey dish.The Baker’s pan is more affordable but otherwise very similar. It is one of the heaviest pans and so, may need longer bake times. It is not recommended for the dishwasher.
    • There were two shortcomings of these ceramic pans. First, removing the slices was not always clean and easy. Also, the generous capacity led to slumping of the fruit when baking a tall fruit pie leading to a gap between the top crust and filling.
  • Another pan they liked was the Creo SmartGlass Pie Plate. It was created to combine the best features of glass and ceramic plates. It pairs an extra-durable borosilicate glass interior with a stylish ceramic exterior. It is lighter in the hand than full ceramic dishes. They found it to be consistent with excellent heat conduction resulting in golden crusts without sticking or soggy bottoms.
  • They agreed with Cooks Illustrated about the Williams Sonoma Goldtouch pan. They found it did a great job with blind baking crusts and had easy and clean removal of slices. They did not think it was versatile enough to rate as their #1 choice as custardy pies (e.g., pumpkin) had the edges shrink and the crust set faster than filling.

Serious Eats – a 2022 review of essential pie making equipment by Stella Parks

  • Her favorite was tempered glass pie plates. She stated that they are inexpensive, sturdy and nonreactive. They conduct heat rapidly resulting in the butter melting quickly and thus releasing steam to give you not only a golden crust but one with flaky layers. She does say that a thin, lightweight ceramic pan would have similar results.
  • She did not like the thick ceramic pie plates as the crusts were pale and greasy. She contributes this to the fact that they conduct heat slowly and so, the crust bakes slowly. This causes the butter to ooze out without cooking through. She found that this resulted in a bottom crust that was dense and soft rather than layered and crisp.
  • Her complaint with metal pans is that they are reactive and so are not appropriate for pies such as lemon meringue or key lime.
  • Finally, she was surprised at how well disposable aluminum pans did as they yielded crusts that were crisp and golden and gave the best browning and texture of all the pans. She warned as they will bake faster, this might be a problem for custard pies that call for a longer bake time.

Epicurious – tested first in 2019 & updated in 2022

  • Just as with Cooks Illustrated, their top pick was the Williams Sonoma Goldtouch Pro Nonstick Pie Dish. They found it to be sturdy and pies baked evenly with nice browning. The slices came out easily. They could even lift out an entire pie without it falling apart. It was lightweight and easy to transport. They also found that it would scratch with metal utensils but this did not interfere with its performance.
  • Their runner-up was the Pyrex 9 inch glass pie plate. As with others, they found it to be sturdy and inexpensive. It baked evenly and they liked the see-through bottom. They also agreed with Cooks Illustrated that it was slightly harder to clean and noted “stickage issues” with graham cracker crusts.

My “go-to” pie plate has always been one of the tempered glass plates. After looking at all the reviews, I may have to try the Williams Sonoma Goldtouch pan. What about you?

Cooking Tips · Techniques

The Final Step to a Great Pie

(Updated September 2022)

In the last few Cooking Tips, we have been discussing how to put that perfect pie on your dinner table. We looked at ingredients and techniques for making a great pie crust. You are now ready to put it in the oven but there is another subject to discuss – blind baking your pie crust. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Blind baking a pie crust is simply pre-baking your crust (either partially or totally) before adding your filling. So, when do you blind bake your crust? The simple answer you might say is – when the recipe tells you to do so. Yes, that is true, but there are general guidelines to let you know whether you should do this.

Pies that have fillings that are not baked require a fully baked pie crust. An example is a yummy French Silk Pie. Since the pie is not going into the oven after adding the filling, the pie crust needs to be fully baked.

Other times you want to blind bake is with custard pies or pies with delicate fillings. With custard pies (such as pumpkin), the moisture in the filling might make the crust soggy before the crust is fully baked. Partially baking the crust before adding the filling helps to prevent this. There are also some delicate fillings that are only briefly cooked on the stovetop. If you do not blind bake the crust but rather put the filling in an unbaked crust, the filling would be over-cooked before the crust is fully baked. An example is Chocolate Cream pie.

One time you do not want to blind bake is if you are making a double-crust pie. If you blind bake the bottom crust, your top crust won’t adhere to the bottom crust. If your filling is such that you would prefer a blind-baked crust to prevent sogginess, you can place decorative pieces of crust over the top to give you a type of open double crust such as in this Gooseberry Pie recipe.

Blind baking is not as simple as putting your unfilled pie crust in the oven. If you do that without adding some weight, your pie crust will puff up – not ideal if you want to put a delicious filling into it. It also makes it much more likely that the sides of your crust will droop before it sets.

Now we know why we need to blind bake a crust, how do we do it? There are three recommended ways depending on what you are looking for in your finished pie.

If you want a pie with a pretty crimped edge or you have a tall crust, line the unbaked crust with foil or parchment making sure it fully covers the crust and the edges of the pie crust. Foil is often preferred over parchment as you can get it into the corners better as well as folding it over the crust to prevent overbrowning. Fill the crust at least 2/3 full with something to weight the crust down as it bakes. I love ceramic pie weights. They conduct heat well and fill up the entire crust. Just make sure you have enough to fully cover the crust. I tend to use two boxes of these for one pie crust.

You have probably heard that you can use dry beans or rice. Those are poor heat conductors resulting in a longer baking time to get to the proper stage.  Another option is granulated sugar, an excellent heat conductor.

Stacey Ballis with did an experiment testing different types of weights. Her favorite method was granulated sugar, which conducts heat as well as the ceramic weights but gets into the corners of the pie crust better. She uses the sugar a couple of times and then uses it in her baking. Since it has slightly caramelized by being in the oven, she recommends using it for meringues. Serious Eats agrees with this choice. If you don’t want to use sugar, the ceramic weights are a close second.

As I discussed in last week’s Tip, you should have chilled your pie crust. If you haven’t done that by this step, you may chill it with the weights in place. After chilling, place it in a 375° oven for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and carefully remove the very hot pie weights. Prick the bottom with a fork and return crust to the oven. If you will be baking the pie filling, bake the crust for another 5-8 minutes. If you are not baking the filling, bake the crust for another 12-20 minutes until fully baked. This method should work for most pie crusts but some recipes may have slightly different baking temperatures and times.

A second method is called the “Low & Slow” method. With this method, the pie crust is baked at 350° with pie weights in place for an hour. Baking at a more moderate heat is said to reduce shrinkage & puffing.

A third method is to sandwich the crust between two pans and bake upside down. This method is good for pies with a flat edge that do not need the extra height or when you are not looking for a decorative edge. To use this method, place the crust in the pan and flatten its edge. Spray the outside of another pie pan and nestle into the crust. You may also line the crust with parchment before putting pans together. At this point, chill for 30 minutes to solidify fats and prevent shrinkage.

Now, place the pans upside down on a baking sheet so that the empty pan is on the bottom. Bake for 20 minutes in 375° oven. As the proponents of this method say, “Gravity ensures that as your crust slips ‘down’ the side of the pan, it’s actually moving up!” When baked, remove from the oven and use a spatula to carefully turn over and prick with fork. Return the crust to the oven right side up without second pan and bake for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. You may now fill the crust. When would you want to do this method? It is ideal for pies where the edge of the pie is not as important as its top, such as Lemon Meringue.

What about your pie plate? That is the subject of next week’s Cooking Tip. See you then!

Cooking Tips · Techniques

Techniques for a great pie crust

(Updated September 2022)

After discussing the ingredients you need to make a pie crust, I now want to turn to bringing that crust into reality. That is the subject of this week’s Cooking Tip – how to make a great pie crust. As you read this Tip, you will notice that I often give you different recommendations. Everyone has their preferred method and I want to give you alternatives so you can find what works best for you.

The first point I want to make is COLD is your friend when making pie crusts. The fat that you cut into the flour needs to stay solid as long as possible so that once it is in the oven, it will melt at the appropriate time creating steam and thus, the flaky layers we all crave in pie crusts.

The fist method is the hand method. Start by putting your flour and salt in a bowl and whisk together. I highly recommend weighing your ingredients but if not, measure carefully. At this point, if your kitchen is warm, you may want to refrigerate the bowl/ingredients/equipment. Your aim (no matter the ambient temperature) is a final dough temperature of 65° to 70°. Yes, you can take the temperature of your dough. Just one more reason to have a good digital thermometer in your kitchen armamentarium.

Serious Eats points out that if your room temperature is above 73°, everything that touches the dough will warm it. You may have noticed that your dough seems to need less water on a hot day. That is because the butter is softer making it act more like a liquid. Although you may be tempted to use less water, this may lead to a weaker dough giving you headaches when you try to roll it out.

A solution is to chill everything with an aim to keeping your dough temperature below 70°. Take everything (your bowl with the dry ingredients, your rolling pin and your pie pan) and put them all in the refrigerator. Your fat and your water should already be in there keeping COLD until you need them. If your countertop is warm, fill some plastic bags with ice water and place on the countertop to cool it.

Next, add your COLD fat – butter, shortening or a combination. If you are using a combination, cut up the shortening and add first. Mix it in until the mixture is like sand. Then, add your butter, which should be cut into small cubes, and toss gently in the flour. Working quickly, cut the butter into the flour. I think no tool works as well as your hands to do this step although you can use a pastry cutter. Using a snapping motion between your fingers and thumbs, you will flatten out the butter cubes. Continue this until all the butter is flattened. If your hands are warm, you may want to cool them under the cold tap first. Do not overmix – you want to be left with an uneven mixture with butter pieces that vary in size. Remember, this is what is going to give your crust its flaky layers. So, you do not want your butter to melt or totally disintegrate as you are doing this.

This is the point where you add the ICE water. One train of thought is to never add all the water at once. Add it incrementally so the dough does not get too wet. Start with drizzling in a few tablespoons and gently tossing the mixture. A bowl scraper works great for this. Continue until the dough holds together if you squeeze it in your palm. The reasoning for this is that excess water can lead to more gluten development. However, a too-dry dough can be very difficult to roll out.

Another point of view is that gluten is not necessarily the enemy of soft, flaky crusts. Adding the water listed in the recipe all at once and mixing until it comes together will give you a dough that is easier to roll out without tearing.

After adding the water and mixing, empty the bowl onto a very lightly floured surface or onto a piece of parchment paper. There are two ways you can proceed from here. The easiest is to just gently gather the dough into a ball. If it is still too dry, add more ice water but a small amount at a time. A spritz from a spray bottle may be all you need. If you have added too much water, sprinkle a bit more flour and gently mix it in.

A second way of finishing your pie dough is only slightly more work but gives you even more flaky layers. For this method, you may want to put your dough onto a piece of parchment. Press your dough into a rectangle and then, using the paper to assist you, fold it into thirds – just as you would a business letter — and then fold in half so it is square-shaped. If necessary, using a water bottle, spritz any dry areas with the ice water and then fold. You can also do this folding without parchment by putting your dough onto a floured counter and use a bench scraper to help with the folding.

At this point, shape your dough into the shape of the pan into which you will put it. This will make it easier to roll out to the correct shape. If you have made enough dough for a double crust, cut the dough in half before shaping. Some recommend rolling the shaped dough’s sides along a floured surface to smooth the edges.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, formerly of Serious Eats, loves using a food processor to make the dough. He claims his method creates a tender and flaky dough that is very easy to roll out. He puts 2/3 of the flour in the food processor bowl along with salt and any sugar and pulses to incorporate. He then adds the cut-up butter and pulse until all the dry flour is gone followed by spreading the dough around the bowl with a rubber spatula. The rest of the flour is sprinkled over the dough and pulsed until the dough is slightly broken up. At this point, transfer the dough to a bowl, sprinkle with water and use the spatula to fold and press the dough until it comes together into a ball. If you want to read about his reasoning, see this article.

No matter which of the mixing methods you use, you need to next chill the dough. One recommendation is to wrap your dough into plastic and put in the refrigerator for a minimum of 30 minutes. This hardens the fat, which has warmed and softened during the mixing process. It also allows the gluten to relax. You may wish to freeze the dough at this point for use at a future time. If so, wrap in plastic and then in foil before putting in the freezer.

When you are ready to actually assemble your pie, remove the chilled crust from the refrigerator. If it has chilled longer than 30 minutes, you may need to let it warm up just a bit on the counter, leaving it wrapped. It needs to be soft enough to roll but should still be cold to the touch. As you roll it out, you should see large pieces of flattened butter.

Since rolling the dough “wakes” up the gluten and softens the butter, a different recommendation is to roll out your dough and put it in the pan right after you make it. Then, chill it thoroughly in the pie pan – about two hours.

Transferring it to the pan can be done by folding the rolled-out dough into quarters, placing it in the pan and unfolding it. Another method is to gently roll the dough around your rolling pin and then unrolling it over your pan.

You are now ready to finish your pie, right? No, remember the word I mentioned in the beginning – COLD. You want to chill your pie crust before filling it. Once again, this chilling helps to solidify that wonderful fat as well as minimizing shrinkage during baking.

Some just recommend refrigerating the dough after being put in the pie plate. As you have mixed and rolled out the dough, the gluten strands that have developed are stretched and want to snap back. You have probably seen that as you roll your dough; it doesn’t always stay put but tends to shrink. Resting the dough allows the tension in the strands to ease so they remain stretched and don’t shrink back when heated. However, as the pie is baked, the dough is not well set by the time the butter vaporizes. So, the air pockets created by the steam when the butter melts disappear. The soft, not-yet-set dough sinks into those spaces resulting in less flakiness.

Others recommend freezing the dough before baking. As you bake frozen dough, it heats up and sets relatively quickly in comparison to the time it takes the butter to melt. By the time the water in the butter starts to turn to steam, the dough is well into its setting stage. The air spaces occupied by the frozen butter, now that it has largely turned to steam, hold their shape because the dough has started to set. Thus, flakier layers. The downside is that as the water freezes, it holds the stretched gluten in place rather than allowing it to relax. So, when you bake it, the gluten strands snap back and the crust shrinks.

Many recommend a compromise by first refrigerating the dough for approximately 40 minutes to relax the gluten to minimize shrinkage followed by putting it in the freezer for 20 minutes to improve flakiness. Yes, this does require a bit more timing but could lead to a superior result. Now you are ready to choose your favorite filling. However, before putting your filling in the pan, stop and ask yourself if you need to par-bake your crust. Stay tuned for next week’s Tip as we delve into what par-baking is, when you need to do it and how to par-bake. See you then!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

The Foundation to a Great Pie

(updated September 2022)

As Fall is approaching, many of us start to think about pie making. In the next few Cooking Tips, I will discuss ingredients, techniques and equipment. Let’s start with ingredients for the foundation of your pie — the pie crust.

Do you make your own or do you use Pillsbury? Making a pie crust is so incredibly easy. Although store-bought crusts may be fine in a pinch, I encourage you to start making your own. They freeze beautifully and you will always be ready for pie. There are really two parts to making a great pie crust – your ingredients and your technique.

The ingredients that go into most pie crusts are minimal – flour, fat and water. Some will also have a bit of sugar, eggs, dairy (such as sour cream or cream cheese) or even nut flours. Let’s address these one by one.

Flour – most of us are going to use all-purpose flour for our pie crusts. I recommend mastering the technique with this flour before branching out as other flours will act differently.

Fat – the main fats used in pie crusts are butter and/or shortening. Lard used to be a stand-by but, today it is hard to get good quality lard. This is a subject for another Cooking Tip. For now, let’s stick with butter and shortening.

The main advantage of butter is flavor. It will give you a flaky crust since as the water in butter converts to steam, it puffs up the crust. The downside is that because butter has a low melting point, it is hard to maintain a nice crimp to your pie crust.

Shortening has a higher melting point allowing it to stay in solid form longer. Therefore, the crimp has a chance to set before it melts. There are those that think that this higher melting point also leads to a flakier crust than butter. It does lack, though, the wonderful flavor of butter.

This contrast is what leads to the recommendation of using both butter and shortening. Some claim that using a ratio of 3:2 butter to shortening gives you the best of both worlds.

Personally, I think there is nothing better than an all-butter crust. Yes, the crimp does slump but you can try to somewhat prevent this by proper chilling of the dough, discussed in next week’s Tip.

Water – all pie doughs need some sort of liquid to pull everything together. It is usually, although not always, in the form of water. Occasionally the liquid will be provided by another ingredient such as eggs, sour cream or other dairy. One point that is very important is that in order to keep the fat in the dough solid as long as possible, the water should be very cold.

There is a debate about how much water to add to the dry ingredients. Because water leads to the development of gluten, some say to add your water gradually just until you have a cohesive dough. They caution that too much water will result in a tougher crust due to the increased gluten. Others say that gluten is not necessarily a bad thing as it helps your dough to be stronger and less prone to tearing as you roll it out. I will discuss this more in next week’s Tip on the proper techniques of making pie dough.

This balance of too much/not enough water is what leads some experts to recommend adding vodka or any 80-proof spirit for part of the water. There is no discernible alcohol taste but they claim it is easier to roll out the dough. The reasoning is that although gluten forms with the water, it does not with alcohol. They recommend mixing ¼ cup of water with the same amount of vodka and using this mixture in your pie dough. A tender but very easy to roll out dough is the result. I must say that I have not noticed this is much of an advantage when I have tried it.

What about the old recommendation of adding vinegar or lemon juice to your pie dough? The sources that recommend this say it reduces gluten development. However, when put to scientific tests, it has been found that slightly acidic doughs actually have more gluten. To get the desired tenderizing effect, you would have to use about ¼ cup of acid, which would give your dough a very sour taste.  So, this is one “old wives’ tale” that we can put to rest.

For basic pie dough, called Pâte Brisée (translated broken paste or dough), the only ingredients are flour, fat and water. An easy to remember ratio is 3:2:1 – 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat and 1 part water where 1 part is 4 ounces. Another recommendation is 2 parts flour to 2 parts fat with 1 part water. As I mentioned above, I use all butter as my fat but you could also do a mixture of butter and shortening. This type of pie crust can be used for any application.

There may be times when you want a sweeter dough, called Pâte Sucré (sugar paste/dough). Although recipes vary, the one I like to use contains flour, fat, sugar and eggs. The latter is what provides the liquid. Any sweet pie or tart filling works great with this dough. A delicious example is a Lemon Tart.

A third version is Pâte Sablé (sand paste). In this type of dough, you use a nut flour in addition to your AP flour. Other ingredients are sugar, butter and eggs. This is the only pie dough of these three where the ingredients are better at room temperature as they will be creamed together in a mixer. This dough can be made into cookies or used in other sweet pastry applications.

Now that you have the necessary ingredients, stay tuned for next week’s Tip on technique. Although ingredients are important, it is really the technique that will make or break your pie crust. It sure is getting delicious around here, isn’t it?  See you next week!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Cardamom – what it is & how to use it

I am about to teach a class on “Elegant Dining”. One of the desserts we will be making is an adaptation of the French Napoleon. Part of the recipe involves making an orange compote that is sweetened by honey and spiced with cardamom. Cardamom is one of those spices that probably does not have a space in many of our pantries. The subject of this Cooking Tip is to help you decide whether you need it in your pantry.

Cardamom is the seed of a fruit in the ginger family. The seeds are enclosed in an oval-shaped pod. Today, Guatemala is the world’s largest producer followed by India and Sri Lanka. It is one of the top three most expensive spices in the world along with saffron and vanilla.

There are three main varieties – green, white and black.

Green cardamom (India cardamom)

  • This is the most common variety and is what is probably called for if the recipe does not specify. It can be used in both sweet and savory dishes.
  • The whole pods can be steeped in liquid where its flavor is slowly extracted overtime.
  • For more potency, the pods can be ground although they can be difficult to grind and often leave woody shards behind.
  • The inner seeds can be used whole, crushed or ground.
  • Its flavor is intense and pungent. It is described as spicy and floral with citrus and herbal notes along with undertones of eucalyptus and camphor.

White cardamom

  • This is just a bleached version of the green. Bleaching does improve storage but also gives it a somewhat muted flavor.
  • It is mainly used in Persian and Scandinavian cuisines, especially Scandinavian breads and pastries. It is interesting that in a cookbook given to us by my husband’s brother and his Finnish wife, The Great Scandinavian Baking Book, they only mention the white version when talking about cardamom.
  • There are two theories on how white cardamom came to be such a popular spice in Scandinavia. The first claims that the Vikings took it to Scandinavia after encountering it in the bazaars of Constantinople about 1000 years ago. However, Daniel Serra, a culinary archeologist, says there is no evidence of this. He believes the Moors introduced it to Scandinavia after inhabiting the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century. It is first mentioned by a Danish monk in a 13th century cookbook.
  • It is also said that the green pods probably bleached in the sun during the long voyage from Asia. Scandinavians liked the flavor and still prefer the white pods to this day.

Black cardamom (Nepal cardamom, brown cardamon)

  • Although in the same family, the flavor profile of black cardamom is different from green and white. It is characterized by a smokiness, which comes from the practice of drying the spice over a fire.
  • Due to the flavor, it is mostly used in savory dishes. However, some chefs will add the whole pods to boiling water along with fruit and honey to make a beverage. Others find this smokiness gives an interesting taste to their chocolate truffles.
  • Besides the smokiness, black cardamon also has flavors/aromas of pine, eucalyptus, camphor and menthol.
  • It is one of the main ingredients in garam masala and is sometimes used in Chinese five-spice powder

Thai cardamom (Siam cardamom)

  • This is a type of cardamon that is rarely mentioned. According to Spiceography, the best Thai cardamon comes from the Chanthaburi province in southern Thailand.
  • It is a relative of green cardamom but looks very similar to garbanzo beans.
  • Its flavor is similar to green but has less camphor-notes and more floral and citrus notes with a mild minty fragrance.
  • It is a key ingredient in massaman curry and beef noodle soup. It is also used in Vietnamese pho broth as well as chai seasoning.

Besides what I mentioned above, cardamom is an important ingredient in Indian curry blends. It is often used in beverages such as a flavoring in coffee or Chai tea blends. It is an essential flavoring in Arab and Turkish coffees. Other uses include rice, meat, poultry and seafood dishes. It can be used to flavor punch and mulled wines.

You can easily buy green cardamom but may find it a bit harder to find white or black. Thai cardamom will take some searching. Cardamom can be purchased as whole pods, seeds or ground. As with most spices, the whole has a much longer shelf life, at least a year. Seeds that have been removed from the pods quickly start to lose flavor with exposure to air.

It will have more pungency if you grind just before you use it. As it is so expensive, only grind what you need. To grind, use a mortar/pestle rather than a spice grinder if you only need a small amount. The seeds are so small that it will be hard to grind in a spice grinder. If you want to grind it along with other spices, a spice grinder will probably work just fine.

You can use cardamom in any of its forms. If using the whole pod, it will give you a milder flavor. Some recommend to slightly split or crush the pods to expose the seeds. The pods can then be slowly cooked to extract the flavor. It might be best to put the pods into a spice bag as biting the actual cardamom can be bitter. It also allows for easy removal if you wish to do so.

If using whole seeds, bruise them with the back of a knife before adding them. The final option is to grind the seeds as mentioned above.

If you do remove the seeds from the pods, you can keep the pods and steep them in water or milk for coffee or tea.

Although black cardamon can be treated the same way, some say the best way to use is to use the whole pod.

When using cardamon, be sure to not use it in excess as it can overwhelm other spices and give a bitter note. Cooks Illustrated claims that 12 cardamom pods will yield about 1 teaspoon of whole or coarsely ground seeds or ¾ teaspoon of finely ground seeds. In my experience, I think it takes more than 12 pods to get a teaspoon of seeds but this will give you a starting point.

What if you do not have cardamom and do not want to buy it? Although nothing tastes exactly the same and leaving it out of a dish is not a good option, here are some ideas for substitutions.

Substitute for green cardamom

  • A blend of ground cloves and cinnamon – cloves give you astringency and cinnamon lends a sweet, woody note. For 1 teaspoon cardamon, use ½ teaspoon of each. This would work for meat and seafood dishes.
  • A blend of cinnamon and nutmeg – use the same measurements and use in savory dishes.
  • Cinnamon or nutmeg – You could try either of these on its own but the flavor will be different. They will, though, add the warm notes that cardamom in known for. Start with half the amount called for and adjust.
  • Other individual spices that might work are allspice, ginger and coriander.

Substitute for black cardamom

  • The best substitute will be green cardamom but it will give more citrus notes with less smokiness and astringency. Use equivalent amounts.
  • Garam masala – black cardamom is often a component of this Indian spice blend and so could be used as long as the other spices in that mixture complement your dish.
  • Allspice and galangal have been recommended along with apple pie spice.

Do you have cardamom in your pantry? I have green and white cardamom but only in the whole pod form as I do not use it very often. I have never tried black or Thai cardamon. Have you?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Nonstick sprays – should you use them?

Most of us probably have a can of nonstick spray in our pantries and some of us will also have a can of baking spray with flour. Should we be using these sprays? If so, when should we use them and when should we not use them? Are there any alternatives? All these questions are the subject of this Cooking Tip.

These sprays are oil-based. For example, one of the most popular sprays, PAM, contains “canola oil, coconut oil, palm oil, soy lecithin (prevents sticking), dimethyl silicone (anti foaming agent) and a propellant”. The same company does make products that contain only one type of oil such as olive oil, canola oil, avocado oil or coconut oil rather than a mixture of oils. Of course, there are many other companies that also make similar products.

Baking sprays are different than cooking nonstick sprays. In the former, there is the addition of flour. This is said to decrease the chances that baked goods will stick to the pan. According to America’s Test Kitchen, the flour particles create an “extra gap between the metal and the pastry”. This helps with release but also (according to ATK) insulates the metal so it doesn’t cook as quicky, an advantage for some delicate baked goods.

Those that advocate for cooking sprays will say that it gives you more control over your oil consumption. A spray covers the entire surface of a pan much more easily than liquid oil while using less oil overall. Be aware, though, that these sprays are not calorie-free. Although the label may say a serving has zero calories, a serving size is a spray lasting only a fraction of a second. In typical usage, it would probably add about 30 calories.

Another use for nonstick sprays is for spraying your measuring cups/spoons before measuring out sticky ingredients such as honey or molasses. Due to the spray, these ingredients quickly and completely slide off. Similarly, you can give a spritz on your cheese grater before grating. A quick spray on your pan will also hold parchment paper in place.

Because of the flour, the baking spray is not recommended for cooking uses. It should be reserved for baking pans. America’s Test Kitchen tested different products on Bundt pans and found that a baking spray with flour worked better than plain nonstick sprays and also worked better than traditional greasing and flouring the pan.

Critics of these sprays point to the additives in the can and they say there are health concerns with these additives. They also bring up that many oils, including those in the sprays, are derived from GMO (genetically modified) crops. If you wish to avoid these, look carefully at the label to see whether there is a non-GMO seal. Some outlets also feel there are possible negative environmental effects from the propellants and antifoaming agents found in these cans.

No matter your opinion of these sprays, there is one time you should never use them. That is with nonstick pans. Such pans are typically coated with Teflon, a synthetic chemical. If you use sprays on top of this coating, it will build up and it is practically impossible to remove. This actually ends up ruining the nonstick quality of these pans. If you feel you need some extra insurance when using your nonstick pans, opt for oil or butter.

If you want an alternative to sprays, the easiest thing is to just use a liquid oil or butter. Some companies have introduced sprays that do not have the propellants. PAM is one such brand but their sprays do contain grain alcohol, which they say is for a uniform spray, and soy lecithin to prevent sticking. Whole Foods advertises their 365 brand as having “no additives or propellants”. If you search online, you can also find other brands.

You can also buy a pump spray bottle and use your own oil. Although these do allow to you to use the oil already in the pantry and do not have any other additives, none of them are going to work as well as a typical can using soy lecithin and a propellant. Cooks Illustrated tested a number of them and rated the Norpro Sprayer Mister as the best. Although not high on Cooks Illustrated list, other reviewers liked the Misto sprayer although they varied on which model they preferred. You might have to try several bottles until you find one you like. That may not be something you want to do as they can cost anywhere from $8 to $30. Make sure you know the return policy from the store before purchasing one.

There are also those who recommend making your own nonstick mixture for baking purposes. One such recommendation is to combine ½ cup vegetable oil, ½ cup butter/margarine and ½ cup flour. Other recipes call for vegetable shortening in place of the butter. When Food 52 put it to the test, they had mixed results. Their take-away was that it worked well for layer cakes or other recipes calling for the butter and flour technique. Here is the entire article if you wish to read it.

I have both nonstick cooking spray and baking spray in my pantry. I must say that I almost never use the nonstick cooking spray for cooking applications. Rather, I use oil or butter, depending on the recipe. I also like to oil my food rather than the pan as it leads to less splattering. I do use the spray products for baking applications if they are called for. What about you? What do you use?

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Mesquite Trees – so many uses!

A friend and Cooking Tip reader who recently moved to Texas sent me some information about mesquite trees and possible culinary uses. I have written another Cooking Tip on Foraging but it did not include anything about Mesquite Since it is an interesting tree, I decided to make it the subject of this Cooking Tip. As with any type of foraging, consult an expert before consuming anything you forage.

Mesquite trees commonly grow in the southwest part of the US. They have long been used by native Americans for food, beverages and medicine as well as non-culinary purposes. Long, green pods emerge in the Spring that turn to tan/reddish and become dry and brittle as they ripen.

Different parts of the tree are used for different purposes. The pods are said to be very sweet due to the presence of fructose. This type of sugar is said to have a low glycemic index as well as not requiring insulin to process.

One of the uses that many of us have probably heard of is as a type of smoke flavoring. It became the wood of choice for grilling in the 1980s.

The pods/seeds can be ground into meal that can be used as a type of gluten-free flour with a significant amount of protein and fiber. The flavor is described as sweet and nutty. It can be used in baking muffins, pancakes, tortillas and bread. Chefs will also add it to soups and sauces as well as meat and veggie dishes. Although you may have to use an online source, you can purchase commercially made mesquite flour.

The flowers can be collected and brewed as a tea to treat stomach aches or as an appetite stimulant. The beans can also be roasted and ground to make a type of coffee.

There is a clear sap that can be collected from mesquite trees. The sap is sweet and edible and has been used in a medicinal way for stomach aches or sore throats. There is also a black-colored sap that has been used in preparations to treat male pattern baldness, as an antiseptic wash and for soothing chapped lips and sunburns.

Some say the roots can be chewed to treat toothaches.

There you go – if you are into foraging and you are live in an area with mesquite trees, you may want to seek out an expert and give it a try. If you do, let me know!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients · Techniques

Homemade Pasta — why bother?

Do you make your own pasta? Or, do you purchase it? Making homemade pasta can be incredibly satisfying but, you won’t be able to re-create all types of pasta in your own kitchen. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Making pasta dough is not difficult and the ingredient list is short: flour, water, salt and eggs. As you will read below, the only one of these ingredients that is always used is flour. The others may or may not be used depending on the type of pasta you are making. Before we delve into the specifics of the ingredients, let me talk about what you want in the finished pasta dough.

There are two components to a good pasta dough – elasticity and plasticity. The former means the dough can be stretched and it will bounce back, making it easier to knead. Plasticity means the dough can be molded into a shape and it stays put. Many feel that the key to a good pasta dough is the right combination of elasticity and plasticity. This is achieved by having the right amount of protein and hydration in your flour. The proteins in flour are glutenin and gliadin, which when kneaded develop into a gluten network. Certain flours take more kneading than others to achieve the same level of gluten development.

You also want pasta that is firm enough to stand up to cooking without falling apart or sticking together into a ball. When done, it should be al dente, firm to the bite. This firmness is more easily achieved with a high protein flour.

Finally, you want a dough that doesn’t crack or get brittle when kneaded.


Most will agree that there is no single perfect flour for pasta making. It depends on what type of pasta you want to end up with. (See this Tip for an explanation of the different types of flour.) Most importantly, you want flour with a protein content of between 10 & 15%. This is to ensure there is enough gluten for the dough to be able to stretch without breaking while giving the eater the “bite” we like in a good pasta.

In any discussion of flour for pasta making, you will undoubtedly see the following flours.

AP flour

This flour is nice because we all have it in our pantries and it is less expensive than the specialty flours. Another plus it has a neutral flavor. Depending on the brand, it has a decent protein content but it does take more kneading to get the correct gluten network.

Because it has a fine texture, AP flour is good for making a soft pasta. The dough will be strong and elastic, which makes it good for making different shapes.

There are some downsides to using AP flour. It is easy to overcook and get mushy pasta. Pasta made from this is not great for drying but rather should be cooked fresh.

00 flour

This is a very finely ground flour with a mild flavor. It is the most common flour found in Italian households for making egg pasta by hand.

Some 00 flours may be lower in protein but not always. It depends on what kind of wheat it is ground from. If you do have a lower protein one, it may not be suitable for making pasta without eggs. It needs the egg to hold it together and give the pasta its toothy bite.

It makes a soft, tender pasta that holds up better if overcooked a bit. It is great for softer pasta shapes such as tagliatelle and ravioli.


Semolina is made from durum wheat but is not the same as durum flour. Semolina is more coarsely ground than durum flour and is good for thicker, coarser kinds of pasta, especially pasta that you want to hold onto a lot of sauce. It needs no egg to make the dough.

It has a very high gluten content, which leads to a firm texture. It has less elasticity than AP but much more plasticity. So, it is good for extruded pastas such as penne and macaroni – they don’t lose their shape when cooked.

Pasta mix

Some people like to combine some of the above flours to achieve the result they want. One typical make-at-home mix would be the following.

  • ½# (225 gm) unbleached AP flour
  • ¼# (115 gm) durum flour
  • ¼# (115 gm) semolina

King Arthur Baking Company sells a bag of “Pasta Flour Blend” and it is a blend of the above three flours. As of this writing, a 3# bag sells for $12.95.


Recipes for most fresh pasta will call for eggs. The eggs not only add moisture but also help with binding the dough together. As mentioned above, if you are using semolina as your flour, you probably do not need eggs. Dried pasta that you buy in the store will not be made with eggs.

Recipes will vary on how many eggs are called for. Some will call for whole eggs, some for yolks and some a combination. Here is a link to an interesting article on Serious Eats where the author tests all sorts of different versions. I recommend trying a few recipes and seeing what you like.

Now that you have your ingredients, how do you put them all together? The classic way to make pasta dough is by hand on a countertop. You mound up your flour and make a well in the middle. In the well place your eggs and salt. With a fork, you carefully start working the flour into the egg. As the mixture gets thicker, most pasta makers will switch from the fork to a bench scraper and use that to continue to fold the dough incorporating more flour as you go. When you have incorporated enough flour, you will start kneading the dough. As explained above, this is where the gluten network develops and certain flours (such as AP) will require more kneading to get that right balance of elasticity and plasticity.

Some people like to use a food processor. Put your flour and salt in the bowl and process to combine. Add the eggs and process for 30-60 seconds, until it comes together into a ball. If it doesn’t come together, you may want to add a teaspoon of water. Put dough on the counter and finish with hand-kneading. Alternatively, some experts recommend taking it out of the processor before it pulls together into a ball. When it forms into small clumps, take it out and finish by hand. Since the processor does quite a bit of kneading, you will not to do your hand kneading for as long.

No matter what method you use to make the dough, it should be wrapped in plastic and rested before proceeding with rolling it out. This allows the dough ball to fully hydrate as well as giving the gluten strands time to relax, which will make it much easier to roll.

After resting, the dough is ready to form into your desired pasta shape. Using a pasta machine to roll out your dough will give you superior results. You can try rolling it out with a rolling pin although you probably won’t get it as smooth and thin as you would with a machine. Some sources recommend recipes that they created specifically for hand rolling. If hand rolling, you would then cut it using a knife or a hand pasta cutter or stamp. If using a pasta machine, it usually comes with attachments for cutting strips such as fettuccini.

There are many shapes that you can make by hand. See this fun video from Bon Appetit that shows a pasta expert making 29 different shapes by hand although some did require some additional simple tools.

I mentioned in the beginning that you won’t be able to re-create all pasta types in your kitchen. Although you can certainly try using some of the techniques shown in the above video, it will be very time consuming with a large learning curve. Pasta companies use machines that push the dough through metal dies to create all the different shapes as well as a very carefully controlled drying process. That is why there will always be a place for dried pasta on our shelves.

I do not make homemade pasta as often as I should. When I do, it is primarily to make ravioli or lasagna sheets such as the spinach pasta sheets used in this traditional lasagna recipe. It is a fair amount of work but oh so worth it!

Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Pasta Shapes

Quick, if I asked you to write down all the pasta shapes you can think of, how many would be on your list? I would suspect the average person would write down between 5 and 10 different shapes. How many different shapes do you have in your pantry? My local supermarket has over 25 different shapes. Why do you even need multiple shapes? Afterall, aren’t they all just pasta? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Depending on the source you look at, there are between 350 and 600 different pasta shapes. There is no way I can cover all of these. Rather, I would like to categorize them, give you examples in each category and how to use them.

Soup Pastapastina

This pasta type is great added to broths or soups. They vary in size from very small for light soups to slightly larger shapes for more robust soups. Probably the most common in our stores will be Acini Di Pepe. It is also the smallest, sometimes compared in size to peppercorns. You may also occasionally find Alfabeti or alphabet pasta. This is pasta made into the shape of numbers and letters, especially appealing to children. A third one is Conchigliette, little sea shells. Finally, there is the easy to find Orzo, which can be used both in soups and in pasta dishes.

Long Pastapasta lunga

This is the type of pasta that I suspect most of us have in our pantries. It can vary from very fine, Capelli D’Angelo (angel hair) to the ubiquitous Spaghetti to the slightly fatter Linguini to even larger in the form of Bucatini. One of the largest tubes is known as Candele as it resembles candles. The thinnest forms are best served with delicate sauces with the larger ones suited to heartier meat sauces.

Tube Pasta

Tubular-shaped pasta generally have thicker walls, making them great for capturing thicker sauces whether it be tomato, meat or cheese. Some tube-shaped pastas have ridged surfaces that help them hold onto olive-oil based sauces. This type of sauce tends to just run off from smooth-surfaced pasta. A tube shape pasta that is easy to find is Fusilli, which looks like corkscrews. The very common Penne is another one although the diameter can vary. One of the largest tube pastas is Rigatoni, which we often use in baked pasta dishes.

Ribbon Pasta

The most common is probably Fettuccini, little ribbons. Other ones that may be in your supermarket are Tagliatelle and Pappardelle. The former is very thin but slightly wider than Fettucini. Pappardelle is wider still. In the fresh form, it tends to have fluted edges whereas the dry variety normally has a straight edge.

Shell pasta

This common in our stores and can vary from the tiny Conchigliette mentioned above to a medium size to a giant size. The medium shells are great for tomato and meat sauces whereas the larger ones work well when stuffed and baked.


A cute bowtie or butterfly shaped pasta. Serve with simple oil-based, butter or tomato sauces.

Ruote (rotelle)

This translates to wheel and this unique shape looks like a wheel with spokes. If you find them, they will sometimes be in a package of three colors. The spokes are great for trapping meat and cheese-based sauces.

Sheet pasta

we couldn’t make lasagna without it!

Stuffed Pasta

We are all familiar with Ravioli and Tortellini but you may also run across Capelletti (little hats) and Cannelloni (large reeds). All of these are stuffed with some type of filling but vary in size and shape.

According to Leite’s Culinaria, there is one basic rule for pairing pasta with the correct sauce. “Take into account the heaviness of the noodles compared to the weightiness of the sauce. You want the two to be balanced. Big, hearty noodles are made to stand up to big, hearty sauces, whereas thinner and more delicate noodles need to be tossed with lighter and more delicate sauces.” That rule leads to the following recommendations.

  • Long, skinny pasta such as spaghetti and angel hair are best with a light tomato sauce.
  • Long flat noodles such as fettucine and linguine will stand up to a richer sauce such as an alfredro sauce or even a Bolognese if you are using the wider versions.
  • Tube pastas such as penne and rigatoni are great in baked pasta dishes, richer tomato sauces or in everyone’s favorite – macaroni and cheese.
  • Shapes such as farfalle and fusilli have curves that are perfect for capturing creamy sauces.
  • Stuffed pastas are best with sauces that do not overpower the filling. Serve these with a brown butter sauce, some delicious olive oil or a light pesto.
  • Pastina or soup pastas are meant to give a bit of texture to soups.

So, yes, all of these are pasta but they do give you great variety in your pasta dishes. Just try them in appropriate sauces to highlight their uniqueness.